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Testing times for Chemistry alumnus

Tuesday, 2 May 2017 11:36am


A high-stakes game of chemical cat and mouse has led to innovation on both sides of the law, an Otago alumnus working to restrict the importation of illegal drugs says.  

Senior Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) scientist and Otago chemistry graduate Cameron Johnson says drug manufacturers are increasingly “tweaking” designer drugs in a bid to help their products avoid detection when entering New Zealand. In response, scientists and other agencies are using advanced technology and sharing information to tighten the net.  

“Illicit drug chemistry has undergone vast changes in recent years. Since the emergence of the ‘party pills’ phenomenon in New Zealand there has been an explosion of new psychoactive substances available.  

“New substances emerge at a rapid rate and this certainly presents challenges in their detection and how they are classified under drugs legislation,” he says.    

In addition to the proliferation of substances, an added risk is that molecular “tweaks” may alter the drugs’ psychoactive properties, increasing the potential for them to cause harm, Cameron says.

"Whether it makes them more potent or less potent is unknown because these things are so new. There's not a lot research done on them, which highlights the danger they pose to New Zealanders," he says. Cameron took a BSc majoring in Chemistry and Neuroscience at Otago between 2003 and 2006 and later completed an MSc in Forensic Science at the University of Auckland.

His thesis, based on his work with the ESR, was on illicit drug manufacturing in clandestine laboratories. This led to an 18-month stint with the ESR as Senior Technician in the Clandestine Laboratories group, attending suspected illegal drug laboratories and analysing samples.  

On a subsequent “big OE” to London he gained valuable experience working as a drugs analyst at LGC Forensics. On his return to New Zealand he was again employed by the ESR and has spent the past three-and-a-half-years with the organisation.  

His current role as a Senior Scientist in the Drug Chemistry involves analysis of suspected drug samples, preparing reports for court and presenting evidence as an expert witness.  

Cameron also conducts research on new and emerging drugs, assesses new analysis technology and collates drug intelligence to identify new drug trends. 

“It can be difficult being exposed to some horrible case circumstances and demanding environments. However, we have good support networks at ESR and training to deal with these challenging and stressful situations.”  

The "classic" student experience . . .

Cameron loved the “classic Scarfie” lifestyle at Otago.   

He was a resident at Carrington in his first year and then spent three years flatting in “traditional” student flats, though “never on Castle St!”.

“I made really good friends, developed life skills and learnt so much about really interesting and varied topics. In addition to Chemistry, I ended up doing all sorts of papers including computer programming, psychology, statistics and zoology.  

“Thanks to my brother, who studied Dentistry at Otago, I played four years on a social rugby team. In winter breaks I would also go to Wanaka or Queenstown to snowboard with some of my Otago mates.”  

Cameron describes his time at Otago as truly formative; he met his wife Sarah – they are expecting their second son later this year – and says it “shaped” who he is today.  

“[Studying at Otago] gave me the freedom to find what I was really passionate about and pursue it. It also provided me with a solid foundation (both personally and professionally) that I could build on to get where I am today.”   

Love what you do . . .

His motivation for working as a forensic scientist goes beyond an interest in the science – he also believes in the need to mitigate the threat posed to society by drugs.    

“The main goal of being a forensic scientist is to assist the courts in legal investigations, which will hopefully result in safer communities for New Zealanders to live in. 

“The changing face of drugs, not only in New Zealand, but globally, also presents some exciting opportunities in developing analysis and detection techniques that can keep up with the constant evolution of designer drugs. New Zealand is at the forefront of illicit drug analysis and research, and being able to share information and assist the wider forensic community is also a rewarding aspect of the job.”  

 ABOUT: New Zealand Customs has teamed with ESR and in some situations chemistry academics to detect and seize these compounds.

Drugs can enter the country via sea and air ports, or international mail which all passes through Auckland airport’s mail centre. Customs uses FirstDefender chemical identification devices and laser technology to identify substances from a library of about 11,000 legal and illegal substances.  About 40 per cent don't produce a match and they are sent to ESR for further analysis. Raman spectroscopy is used to determine the "chemical fingerprints" of suspect compounds; about 14 per cent of substances remain unknown.

The compounds are forwarded to the University of Auckland, which uses a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, the same technology used in MRI machines in the health sector.  The results are added to databases in New Zealand and shared with forensics labs around the world.

Click here to read a recent Stuff article on the ESR's work